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Outside Democratic Primary Debate, Clinton And Sanders Supporters Spar Over Data Breach

At the Democratic presidential debate in Manchester last night, Genera Clay was one of a few hundred Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters dancing with placards – as much to support their candidates as to stay warm on this cold evening. Hours before Saturday night’s debate was set to start, these supporters were penned in by a metal fence, and a big flood light lit up the lawn.

Clay was annoyed the Sanders campaign had been blocked out of a crucial voter database as a punishment for the data breach – a move that temporarily hobbled his campaign.

"They got punished unnecessarily for doing the right thing and reporting a wrong," said Clay. "And I just feel like that’s a way to try to sabotage his campaign even more."

During the debate in Manchester, frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders discussed something other than ISIS and the economy: a recent data breech that allowed Sanders staff to access voter information assembled by the Clinton campaign. The facts of the story are still unfolding. But outside the debate at St. Anselm College, supporters of both candidates argued over the bigger meaning of the breach.

Who does Clay thing is doing the sabotaging?

"The DNC all the way," she said. "I mean we know that they support Hillary. It’s pretty obvious."

The "DNC" here is the Democratic National Committee – the national Democratic party. I heard this unapologetic argument from most of the Sanders supporters I spoke with Saturday: the data breach is irrelevant, and the Democratic establishment is looking to sabotage their candidate. In fact, this is the exact narrative the Sanders campaign has been pushing for the last couple days, and they’re even raising money with it.

"From the beginning I think that the DNC has been trying to stall Bernie’s campaign," said Ray Langelier of Turner, Maine. "It’s like they’ll do whatever it takes to win."

"I’m sorry, it’s a great story but it’s a fairy tale," said Risa Levine, who drove here all the way from Manhattan. Levine’s a Clinton supporter – Clinton was her senator – and she says Senator Sanders response to this whole thing rubs her the wrong way.

"I couldn’t be fascinated any more than by somebody who does something wrong and then complains when they get a punishment for that very act," said Levine. "It makes absolutely no sense to me. You violate the laws. You violate the rules of the party that you’re a guest in. And then you download information in violation of the rules, and then you reject the punishment that you get? That makes no sense to me."

Wherever the truth lies, this data breach and the subsequent responses mark a dramatic change in tone in a Democratic primary that – up to this point – has been rather civil, particularly compared to the Republicans. And it remains to be seen if that tone gets nastier, or if both campaigns try to put it behind them.  

Shawn Dempsey of Pembroke has already moved on. 

"Senator Sanders, he is a man of integrity," said Dempsey. "However, I am voting for Hillary. I think what you have seen between the three democratic candidates is a very civil race. They haven’t really done anything that would make me think that it’s going to turn that way."

A note of political optimism on a cold night in Manchester, 51 days before New Hampshire voters head to the polls.

Before joining NHPR in August 2014, Jack was a freelance writer and radio reporter. His work aired on NPR, BBC, Marketplace and 99% Invisible, and he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and Northern Woodlands.

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